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Soulful Sundays: Competition

“Some people don’t like competition because it makes them work harder, better.” -Drew Carey

Competition over limited resources is a driving force for change in biology. Each environment exerts a constant natural pressure that influences the fitness of the species living there. This invariably results is the inheritance of traits and customs (when discussing social species) that successfully iterate. When the carrying capacity of an ecosystem is exceeded, disruption must occur. This can happen in a variety of ways—conflict, famine, flight, or niche creation. Only one of these results in greater abundance over time.

”Niche creation” is a natural phenomenon originally discovered by scientists who were perplexed by the two-fold paradox of tropical rainforests: 1) Rainforests are the planet’s most biodiverse and productive (by measure of biomass) terrestrial ecosystems, yet they exist on some of the world’s most nutrient depleted soil types; 2) Despite being home to millions of species of plants and animals, there is very little direct competition for resources. What is the answer to these two riddles? Inter-species superintelligence, it would seem.

In response to the pressures of nearing ecological carrying capacity, tropical species evolved to exploit unique habitats and underutilized sources of food instead of engaging in direct conflict or emigration. For example, there are over 1,300 unique species of birds in the Amazon, each surviving on slightly different diets and living in slightly different nesting habitats. The same is true for the 14,000 unique plant species living there and the 3.5 million species of insects as well.

While there is still direct competition for undifferentiated resources, like water and sunlight, the niche creation strategy circumvents possible negatives and produces far greater abundance than the other alternatives. In the rainforest, ecological pressure created millions of different functional strategies. It is the biological equivalent to creativity on a grand scale, and it not only fosters more diversity, but it also wastes fewer resources in the process. This absence of waste is what explains the poor tropical soils—no nutrients are lost to the earth because they all remain in the plants and animals.

Diversity and abundance both require competition as a catalyst. Without competition, an ecosystem becomes vulnerable to disease. Consider the monocultures of corn and soy that now populate most of our country’s farmland. These cash crops are raised with the help of Roundup and other technologies to reduce competition, thus leaving them wide open to blight. The lack of competition actually creates a greater fluctuation away from baseline. When things go wrong, they go very wrong.

Now consider the “free” market and the political sphere. We are seeing a similar monoculture of companies and candidates. Small businesses are in a losing battle against government protected corporate giants who control close to 80% of the market’s total value. The same can be seen in the two party system that dominates our country. There is little to no room for ingenuity nor differing perspectives. The two parties ( just like the S and P 500) have an ironclad grasp on the game that they personally crafted over the last century. And when the game fails, it fails big. Reference the 2008 housing crisis or the economic catastrophe that followed the COVID pandemic.

It would seem that we are always on the precipice of change. Luckily, in the market we have more choices than just McDonalds and Burger King (which unfortunately is the sad reality of national politics), and can vote with our dollars to some degree. The lesser of two evils would seem to be the one that produces more personal freedom. The one that decentralizes decision making. The one that fosters competition and adaptation. But even that may be too lofty of a demand currently.

A more compelling answer lies in the compounding effects of every day people becoming more interconnected with their local communities. By finding a niche that begs to be filled, we provide for others in a way that transcends competition with outside forces. This interdependence has been the norm for human cultures for countless millennia and is the antidote for a future that seems to be barreling towards the rocky shore. The more we are called to constructively compete when solving problems, the more creative and relevant our answers become. When we are narrowed to either/or answers and mainline conformity, then we lose that magic.

Look for ways to be useful. Look for places to contribute. Look for people to help.

Stay competitive. Get connected. Remain calm.

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